In the Studio with Tom Knight
last updated 11 October 2021
Tom Knight grew up on Mersea Island on the Essex coast, where he returned to live after having children of his own. Having grown up on a small farm, Tom spent most of his time using his imagination to create new worlds from the hedgerows and haystacks.
Tom is best known for his amazing work on titles such as the Good Knight, Bad Knight series (published by Templar Publishing) and The Big Bed (written by Bunmi Laditan, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Here, Tom talks us through his creative process and how he brought Dennis the monster to life in The Book of Rules, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, which is out later this year.
Hi, I’m Tom!
Practicing gratitude has become very trendy these days, but I can sincerely say that I spring out of bed on Monday mornings feeling extremely grateful that I have ended up being able to make a living drawing pictures for children. I muse about it on my seven second commute down the garden path; I used to work as a graphic designer where my commute was two hours, so by the time I got to work I was ready to turn around and come home again. Things are much better now my studio is in the garden. I call it a studio, though it is actually really just a posh shed.
Welcome to my studio
Drawing and stories have played huge roles in my life ever since I was tiny. I grew up on a small farm and would spend hours roaming the hedgerows and fields imagining they were all part of a huge kingdom where I was free to have endless adventures. Those adventures came in handy when I needed to think of something to draw. Thinking back on it, a lot of the things that inspired me then are still shining beacons for me now. Tolkien, Tintin and the Beano were the holy triumvirate, but also Ronald Searle, E.H. Shepherd and Jill Barklem. The natural world is an endless source of wonder, and I can stare at the sea for hours. Luckily it’s only five minutes down the road, ready to be stared at with a moment’s notice.
I was once lamenting with an art director about short lead times for artwork. She joked and said how nice it would be if publishers could factor some ‘mulling time’ into schedules. I never forgot that. I think mulling time is hugely important, especially at the start of a project. Some great places to mull are: baths, trains, beaches or country lanes, especially when on a bicycle. Sometimes dog walkers may see me staring at the sea at 10am on a Tuesday and think ‘look at that poor unemployed man - I hope he finds some work soon.’ Little do they know that I am having a very important mull. And probably a sandwich (also important).
Just five minutes away from my home
Mulling time was a very important stage for The Book Of Rules by Brian Gerhlein, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Sometimes you work with designers or art directors who have very specific ideas of how the book should look, and other times you have total free reign. Both are great. Farrar, Straus and Giroux gave me almost complete control over how the spreads would work, and it took me quite a long time to figure out a ‘way in’ to The Book Of Rules. The only character that is described in Brian’s brilliant and very funny text was Dennis, a very hungry and not-at-all scary monster. But who was Dennis going to interact with, and where would it all take place? What on earth was I going to actually draw?!
Character Design (or central casting)
First I needed to find Dennis - maybe he would know how this was all going to pan out. It was time to open the sketchbook. Sketchbooks are hugely important to me and I always have several going at the same time. It was very important that Dennis does not look in any way scary, especially as there is an omnipresent threat through the book that Dennis will eat you if you do not obey the rules. It’s a good rule of thumb not to traumatise your readers if you can help it, so Dennis had to look very lovable.
Some of my sketchbooks with early character designs for Dennis
Here you can see I’m looking for Dennis in my sketchbook. By the looks of things I wasn’t having a particularly good Tuesday. Maybe it was too rainy to sit on the beach, or I had run out of sandwiches.
Character designs for the kids
Dennis also needed some dinner, so I also had to design some kids. I think diversity is hugely important in publishing, and we tried to keep our cast as varied as possible. I also needed to give them names to make things easier when I scanned them into the computer later, so as a COMPLETE EXCLUSIVE here you can see what the kids in The Book Of Rules are actually called. Meet Mahmoud, Kiera, Xiu, Molly, Norris and Jordan.
Once everyone has agreed on character designs, it’s time to map out the book. Thumbnails are an extremely useful part of the process. It’s a quick way of designing the page, and allows you to set out the pacing and rhythm of the book. It’s important not to get too bogged down in detail, and keep the limits of the page in mind.
Planning out the look of The Book of Rules
Now we have our cast and a map of their journey, it’s time for the roughs stage. If I had to pick the most labour-intensive part of the process, it’s probably this bit. If my roughs aren’t right I find I spend way too much time trying to sprinkle digital magic over it at the artworking stage to try and save it. If the roughs had been right in the first place there wouldn’t be any need for erroneous magical digital sprinkling. It’s for this reason that my roughs are quite tight. It’s nice to be able to lose yourself in an audiobook by the time it comes to artworking, and you can only do that if you’ve got a good solid rough where all of the thinking is done already.
An example of a spread design
The biggest push and pull of my process is the tussle between digital and traditional working methods. I definitely have an analogue heart - we recently got Alexa for the kitchen and I find her difficult and wilfully obtuse. I would much rather have an actual old school butler, but they are expensive and ethically questionable. However, I have also recently bought myself a Wacom Cintiq, and I love it. It doesn’t question me or deliberately mess me about (I’m looking at you, Alexa) and it speeds up my process enormously. However, I find my work needs the chaos and randomness of traditional working methods for me to truly feel ownership over it. As a general rule, all my linework and textures are done traditionally, and then everything is scanned into the computer and arranged and coloured in photoshop.
Starting to bring the characters to life
Here is some of the final artwork for The Book of Rules on my desk. I mainly used pencil and pastels for the texture. Then everything gets scanned and separated into layers in photoshop. For some of the linework I used blue and red pencils. This meant I could easily separate the lines which made coloring them much easier later.
Everything is coming together
A working process video to show you all the different elements
Scanned elements vs final spread
The method I have outlined here is pretty typical, but I like to begin each project afresh, thinking ‘how am I going to tackle THIS one.’ It’s part of what makes my job so rewarding. I feel like I am on a continuous journey of exploration and discovery, and I can do it all seven seconds away from my fridge. Thank you for reading this far, and many apologies for rambling on. My wife and children have categorically stated that they are not interested in any of this stuff, so I’m afraid you have borne the brunt of their disinterest. Thanks, friend.